“This choice – the agony of the people sent to offshore centres, or deaths at sea – is a false dichotomy. This is not a Sophie’s choice-scenario where we are forced to choose between two unbearable options. There are alternatives; they are just not being implemented.”
For the past three years we have been told by the Australian government that offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island is necessary to deter others from making the dangerous journey to Australia by sea.
We have also been fed the line that this alone is not enough, and intercepting boats and returning the people in them is an indispensable part of the strategy to save lives at sea and to smash the predatory business of people smuggling.
This choice – the agony of the people sent to offshore processing centres, or deaths at sea – is a false dichotomy. This is not a Sophie’s choice-scenario where we are forced to choose between two unbearable options. There are alternatives; they are just not being implemented.
In the wake of the latest reports detailing the abhorrent conditions on Nauru and the recent announcement that the offshore processing centre on Manus Island will finally be closed, a shift has taken place in the public debate on the efficacy of offshore processing.
It has become increasingly apparent that detaining people in deplorable conditions on Nauru and Manus Island has no relation to the steep decline in boats trying to reach Australia. We are not seeing people arrive in boats because the government’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy mandates the interception of boats on the high seas, and the return of their human cargo to whence they came.
As this realisation takes hold, some people are arguing that we can close the offshore processing centres and end the suffering of the people in them, but only if we maintain Operation Sovereign Borders.
However, is the policy of interception and return acceptable and humane? People on those boats are denied access to a proper refugee status determination, and subjected to ‘enhanced screening’ or an attenuated assessment process. Without a proper assessment, the Australian government cannot genuinely determine whether it is safe to return people to their country of origin, and risks breaching the international principle of non-refoulement, the cornerstone of refugee protection.
JRS recognises the need for a pragmatic but principled solution to the status quo – after all, countries have a right to secure borders, and to regulate movement across those borders. That right, however, cannot be allowed to render void the right of people to cross borders to seek asylum under the conventions of international law. It also should not countenance the return of people to countries where they may face persecution, harm, and violations of their human rights, or where they cannot receive a fair and timely hearing of their asylum claims.
Crucially, stopping the boats seriously undermines the international protection regime. This regime only works when all states respect a person’s right to seek asylum by keeping their borders open to those fleeing persecution. It relies on states not to penalise those people without the correct documentation for legal entry into their countries. Most importantly, this regime depends on every country respecting the international legal principle of non-refoulement – the right not to be returned to persecution.
The boats can most certainly be stopped but this should not be achieved by force. The Australian government must first work with its neighbours in the region to remove the need for people to take dangerous journeys in the first place.
If displaced people in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were given access to employment, health services, education and access to a fair, timely asylum process, they would be less likely to risk their lives trying to reach Australia on the open seas. By protecting and fulfilling the fundamental rights of people seeking safety, the boats would stop by themselves.
By Oliver White, Assistant Director, Jesuit Refugee Service
For in-depth analysis on this topic read Why stopping the boats does not solve the problem and Stopping the Boats Part II – A Threat to the Architecture of Protection.